The announcement comes after six years of stalled negotiations and Federal Council intervention that forced the railroads into mediation this year. The case came to highlight the hostility between the railroads, as well as the challenges Amtrak faces in expanding its national footprint. Amtrak primarily operates on tracks owned by other railroads, and the process of securing use can take years, even though federal law requires railroads to prioritize passenger travel.
“We have collectively reached an agreement to support passenger and freight services in the Gulf Coast Corridor,” the Alabama State Railroads and Port Authority said in a joint statement Tuesday.
The railroads and port authority, which had joined freight companies in opposing Amtrak’s return to the area, filed a petition Monday with the Surface Transportation Board advising of their intent to settle. . Last year, Amtrak filed a complaint with the board of directors seeking its support in forcing freight companies to allow it to operate intercity trains. The five-member panel has listened to more than 80 hours of testimony, questioning and cross-examination since February and was due to resume hearings next week and then vote next month.
Board Chairman Martin J. Oberman said Tuesday he welcomed the resolution, noting the board’s preference was for the railroads to “amicably resolve” the dispute without board action. The STB on Tuesday granted the railroads’ demands to make the settlement, a process that is expected to take months.
“Resolving this case will expedite the return of passenger rail operations in the Gulf. This will result in substantial public benefit by providing a public transportation option for Gulf Coast residents and visitors and will have a very positive impact on the region’s economy,” he said. “I look forward to hearing from the parties about specific infrastructure improvements that will be made to the rail network as a result of the settlement.”
The railroads and port authority did not provide any details of the settlement, saying in their joint statement they cannot provide further comment “due to the confidential nature of the settlement agreement.” The petition filed Monday with the STB says they have agreed “to a settlement which – after several conditions have been met in the coming weeks and months – will fully resolve this dispute.”
Amtrak has offered to bring two daily round trips between New Orleans and Mobile, including stops in the Mississippi towns of Bay St. Louis, Gulfport, Biloxi and Pascagoula. This plan is an extension of its pre-Katrina service, when long-distance trains arrived overnight, three times a week.
CSX, which owns most of the track between New Orleans and Mobile, said it would accept Amtrak’s pre-Katrina service levels, but opposed a service plan with more trains using the hallway during peak hours. The two sides also could not agree for years on the capital investment needed to restore service. The Federal Railroad Administration estimated the price at $118 million, while CSX said it would take $440 million.
Amtrak’s Gulf Coast plan is one of 39 new routes the railroad is pursuing as part of its $75 billion vision announced last year to reach dozens more cities and towns. The aspirations coincide with growing demand for more rail service, bolstered by the infrastructure bill President Biden signed into law last year. The measure includes $66 billion for the country’s ailing rail network.
Because the railroads had not agreed to give Amtrak access, a federal law instructed the STB – an independent federal agency that regulates freight railroading – to intervene. Railways are expected to report to the STB on specific infrastructure improvements that will be made to the rail network as a result of the settlement.
Supporters of passenger rail service hailed news of a deal that would bring Amtrak trains back to the Gulf Coast, which was halted after Katrina devastated the region in 2005.
“This 17-year journey has been filled with obstacles and frustration,” said Jim Mathews, president and CEO of the Rail Passengers Association, citing the work of advocates and organizations that have sought to bring back Amtrak trains. . “If we want America’s passenger rail system to catch up with our global competitors, we can’t require states, cities and citizens to invest 17 years in launching new service.”
The Southern Rail Commission, a group of state-appointed members from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama that has lobbied for a decade to bring the trains back, said the announcement is a sign of a ” a bright future for passenger rail service, not just along the Gulf Coast, but throughout the southern United States.
The commission, which helped secure $66 million for improvements to the corridor, said it sees the return of Amtrak service as essential to the region’s growth and economic development.
“We will continue to build on this momentum by working with all concerned – especially the communities that have waited so long for passenger rail – to prepare for the start of service,” said Knox Ross, chairman of the commission.